George Claridge Druce

As far as I was concerned, until a few days ago, ‘Claridge Druce’ was a hardy geranium (indeed, I have heard it referred to as ‘Clarice Druce’, though not ‘Clarice Drudge’). Then I came across his name as the author of some articles on Ulmus plotii in a box of offprints on elm that I was sorting through in one of my volunteer roles, and started looking things up …

George Claridge Druce, by Philip de László, 1931 (Credit: The Bodleian Library, Oxford)

George Claridge Druce (1850–1932) was born in the village of Potterspury in Northamptonshire (near Milton Keynes), the illegitimate son of Jane Druce, about whom very little is known, but who came from a farming family in Buckinghamshire. It’s difficult to imagine a worse start in life in the mid-Victorian period. In 1855 his mother took a job in Yardley Gobion, nearby, and George attended the village school; his education was also helped by ministers from the independent chapel in Potterspury.

He showed a great interest in plants and butterflies from an early age, and at sixteen was apprenticed to the Northampton firm of P. Jeyes & Co., retail and manufacturing chemists. (The P. stands for Philadelphus, and I assume that the firm was the originator of the legendary Jeyes Fluid, but I can’t find confirmation of this.) He rose rapidly through the ranks, and three years later was acting manager, while at the same time studying for pharmaceutical exams, which he completed in 1872. Having cleared this hurdle, he had more time for his major interest.

As well as creating an herbarium, he wrote on local flora, and was involved in setting up a local pharmaceutical association. He also co-founded the Northamptonshire Natural History Society. However, in 1879 he left Jeyes and set up by himself as a chemist on Oxford High Street. (The ODNB suggests that, a son of the Jeyes family having just entered the firm, Druce assumed that he would never head the business; and the move to Oxford was driven by the requirement that he could not set up in competition with his former employer within a radius of thirty miles.)

The plaque on 118 High Street, Oxford
Two advertisements for Druce’s goods

In Oxford, he was no less energetic. There is a summary of his activities here which demonstrates how remarkable his achievements were. He published A Flora of Oxfordshire in 1886 (reissued in a second edition on 1927), which earned him an honorary MA degree from the university. In 1895, he was appointed special curator to the Fielding Herbarium of the university, and published his initial account of this neglected collection in 1897.

Robert Morison, physician and botanist (Credit: the National Portrait Gallery)
Johann Jakob Dillenius, by an unknown artist (Credit: the Linnean Society)

Later work on the collection of Dillenius (edited by Sydney Howard Vines (1849–1934), another remarkable botanist at both Cambridge and Oxford) was published in 1907; an account of the collection of Robert Morison (1620-83, royal physician to Charles II and professor of botany) and a final volume in 1919.  (The whole work was published as An Account of the Herbarium of the University of Oxford.)

His work is criticised in the ODNB entry, by D.E. Allen, as being sometimes rushed, and therefore inaccurate, but this, though sad, is perhaps unsurprising given the number of other activities he pursued. He continued to work as a field botanist, publishing The Flora of Berkshire in 1897, the Flora of Buckinghamshire in 1926, and The Flora of Northamptonshire in 1930. IPNI records 1032 plants named by him, though not all of these have stood the test of time – perhaps another case of his working too fast – and many of them were first published in the Report of the Botanical Exchange Club of the British Isles.

The Club, founded in 1836, and now better known as the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, was intended as a repository for recording new specimens, with notes on their location, and sending out herbarium specimens to its members. Druce acted as the ‘Distributor’, of the Report for several years, and in this issue from 1888 he appears as a major contributor as well as the editor.

Druce as a contributor, Distributor and Editor
Note that in June 1877, Druce was botanising in Guernsey

In 1903, he was made honorary secretary of the now declining Club, and decided unilaterally (as the ODNB says): ‘to change its character and build it up into the major national society that field botany glaringly lacked’. He was opposed by many of the existing members, but he was determined to widen the availability of botanical information, especially to younger people (perhaps he was thinking of his own younger days?).

A stamped slip from the Botanical Exchange Club. By this time, Druce had moved from ‘above the shop’ to Yardley Lodge (perhaps named for Yardley Gobion?) in Crick Road, Oxford, where he died.

Meanwhile, he was travelling widely (once as far as Australia) in pursuit of plants, and also taking an interest in medieval depictions of plant and animal life. His translation of The Bestiary of Guillaume le Clerc: Originally Written in 1210-11, was published posthumously (for private circulation) in 1936; before that, in 1915 had come Some Abnormal and Composite Human Forms in English Church Architecture, and in 1919 The Mediaeval Bestiaries and their Influence on Ecclesiastical Decorative Art, and The Elephant in Mediaeval Legend and Art: all this while running his business, being an active Freemason, and serving on Oxford City Council from 1892 to 1932, becoming Sheriff of Oxford in 1897 and Mayor in 1900.

He was a Fellow of the Linnaean Society and of the Royal Society, and obtained a DSc. from Oxford by examination in 1922. He also received an honorary LLD from St Andrews, presumably for his field work in Scotland, which resulted in The Adventive Flora of Tweedside (1919), co-written with Ida M. Hayward (1872–1949) and The Flora of Wester Ross (1929).

Going back to where we started, his article on Ulmus plotii, which he named after Dr Robert Plot (1640–96), the Oxford naturalist and antiquarian, was published in the Gardeners’ Chronicle of 1911:

In this picture of another U. plotii, the man is believed to be Druce

Druce never married; his mother lived with him in Oxford until her death, and he is buried next to her in the Holywell cemetery in Oxford. He left his herbarium, containing about 200,000 specimens, to the university, along with his house and book collection, in order to promote a new institute of systematic botany: the Oxford herbarium is now known as the Fielding-Druce Herbarium.

G. oxonianum ‘Claridge Druce’: which colour is accurate?

I have to confess that I don’t really like the colour of Druce’s eponymous Geranium (which varies wildly online, see above), but perhaps I ought to acquire one, in honour of an extraordinarily energetic, enthusiatic and popular botanist, who – even if he was sometimes rushed to the point of carelessness – contributed massively to the progress of British botany.


This entry was posted in Biography, Botany, Gardens, Italy, Museums and Galleries, Natural history and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to George Claridge Druce

  1. Sue Roe says:

    What a hero! Thanks. I have the geranium and the colour is variable but ok in mid summer when there is lots of other strong colour.

    Liked by 1 person

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